By Mark J. Ravina, University of Texas
Japanese Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke became the primary target of the anti-treaty movement in 1960. Not one to take things lying down, the harder Nobusuke pushed, the worse his image and the political situation became. The more he ignored dissent, the more he further enhanced the opposition’s argument that he was a man of Japan’s ugly fascist past, and not a man of its democratic future.
Japanese Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke had served in Prime Minister Tōjō Hideki’s wartime cabinet. He was in charge of the industrial development of Manchuria, known as the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, where he used forced labor to promote rapid industrialization.
Under the US occupation, he was arrested as a war criminal. But the US decided he could be a valuable ally because he was a fiercely anti-communist bureaucrat and had experience in promoting economic growth.
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Wartime Political Oppression
When in office, Nobusuke obliged the opposition by acting like an autocrat. In 1958, he’d tried to pass a new law to give the police wide powers to carry out preventative detention. The police would have been able to take suspicious individuals into custody before they committed a crime and conduct searches if they suspected a crime was going to happen.
The police could have also been able to prevent demonstrations and parades. The bill reeked of wartime political oppression. Nobusuke later admitted that he wanted the power to break the Japanese labor union movement, particularly the teacher’s union. The bill was so odious that Nobusuke’s own party abandoned him and killed the legislation.
Contempt for Parliamentary Process
Nobusuke’s contempt for parliamentary process, too, became apparent when he presented the new security treaty to the Diet in February 1960. By then, he had successfully renegotiated several key points. Most importantly, he got an explicit commitment that the United States would consult Japan on the deployment of US forces.
When legislators asked him whether US bombers could leave their bases in Japan and drop nuclear weapons on, let’s say, North Korea, Nobusuke said no—such an act would be subject to consultation.
The Actual Treaty
But that was a very optimistic interpretation of the actual treaty, which reads:
The Parties will consult together from time to time regarding the implementation of this Treaty, and, at the request of either Party, whenever the security of Japan or international peace and security in the Far East is threatened.
Nonetheless, the opposition pressed Nobusuke, questioning, hypothetically, what if Japan and the US ‘consult’ on bombing Pyongyang, and the US disregards Japan’s sentiments. In such a case, though ‘consultation’ would have been carried out, it won’t be binding.
Nobusuke responded by underlining Japan’s veto power. The opposition in return promptly questioned its specificity asking where exactly was it mentioned in the treaty.
Nobusuke and his cabinet scrambled to explain that somehow implicit in the phrase ‘consultation’ was the power for Japan to issue a veto. Unimpressed, the opposition remarked that if it was implicit, Nobusuke should go back and get a treaty with an explicit veto instead.
Tension in Postwar Japanese Politics
In this back and forth with the opposition, the irony was that Nobusuke controlled large majorities in both the upper and lower houses. So, all he needed to do was to use slow and deliberate parliamentary procedures to get the new US-Japan security treaty approved. But that wasn’t his style.
What he overlooked was the fact that there already existed a deep tension in postwar Japanese politics. The protests against Nobusuke and the treaty became huge. Tens of millions of Japanese joined some form of protest: signing petitions, marching in demonstrations, or joining one of several general strikes.
And even after massive public protests, such as a general strike on June 4 involving at least 5 million workers, Nobusuke still didn’t understand that his career was over.
Vote in the Upper House
Somehow, Nobusuke was convinced that he could fix the situation by holding a vote in the upper house on June 16th, just before Dwight Eisenhower’s visit. Maybe a ‘yes’ vote in the upper house, presumably without a police presence—without terrible optics—would somehow fix what had transpired in the lower house.
But on June 15th, massive protests formed at the Diet, in anticipation of the vote the following day. The most radical student factions—breakaways from the communist party—clashed with angry and exhausted police.
Kishi Nobusuke: A Man of Japan’s Fascist Past
The students set police trucks on fire and tried to pull down the gates to the Diet. The police responded by cracking skulls. In the melee, a 19-year-old female university student was killed—probably by the police—though the exact cause of death remains in dispute.
With that death, the anti-treaty narrative—the story that Nobusuke was a man of Japan’s fascist past and not its democratic future—could be condensed into one picture. It was a pretty simple message: Nobusuke’s thugs will murder your children.
Call for Nobusuke’s Resignation
Within 36 hours, all of Japan’s major newspapers and business organizations had denounced the violence and called for a return to ‘parliamentary democracy’.
At that point, even Kishi Nobusuke knew that return to ‘parliamentary democracy’ was just a polite call for his resignation. The newspapers and business organizations explicitly or implicitly called for him to resign. He held out until June 23rd, when the US and Japan exchanged official diplomatic instruments of ratification. And then he resigned.
Common Questions about the Anti-Treaty Narrative and the Fall of Kishi Nobusuke
Kishi Nobusuke had successfully renegotiated several key points with the US. Most importantly, he got an explicit commitment that the United States would consult Japan on the deployment of US forces.
The irony in Kishi Nobusuke‘s back and forth with the opposition was that he controlled large majorities in both the upper and lower houses. So, all he needed to do was to use slow and deliberate parliamentary procedures to get the new US-Japan security treaty approved.
Kishi Nobusuke knew that return to ‘parliamentary democracy’ was just a polite call for his resignation.